Before discussing whether or not people who are lactose-intolerant still enjoy cheese, it is important to differentiate between being lactose intolerant and having dairy allergies. Lactose intolerance is characterized by the inability to digest lactose sugar, one of the major components in milk. On the other hand, if you have dairy allergies it is more likely you have a reaction to either the casein protein or whey protein in milk.
Symptoms of Lactose-Intolerance
The signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance usually begin 30 minutes to two hours after eating or drinking foods that contain lactose. Common signs and symptoms include:
- Nausea, and sometimes, vomiting
- Abdominal cramps
Lactose intolerance occurs when your small intestine doesn't produce enough of an enzyme (lactase) to digest milk sugar (lactose). Normally, lactase turns milk sugar into two simple sugars — glucose and galactose — which are absorbed into the bloodstream through the intestinal lining.
If you're lactase deficient, lactose in your food moves into the colon instead of being processed and absorbed. In the colon, normal bacteria interact with undigested lactose, causing the signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance.
There are three types of lactose intolerance -- primary, secondary, and congenital or developmental. Different factors cause the lactase deficiency underlying each type.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you frequently have symptoms of lactose intolerance after eating dairy foods, particularly if you're worried about getting enough calcium.
Cheese is Still OK for Some Lactose-Intolerant
For some people who have determined they are only lactose intolerant, cheese can be eaten.
This is because lactose is primarily in the whey, not the curds. When cheese is being made (with the exception of some soft cheeses that contain whey, like ricotta) the whey (liquid) is discarded and the lactose goes with it.
Eating Aged Cheeses
Curds still have a little bit of lactose, but not much. As cheese ages and loses moisture and becomes hard, there is even less lactose left in the curds. The longer a cheese is aged and the harder texture it has, the less lactose remains. Some people who have trouble digesting lactose can eat cheese that has been aged until it has a hard texture. Another option for people who want to avoid lactose is to eat lactose-free cheese substitutes.
Some believe that cheese made from goat milk is the easiest type of cheese for lactose intolerant people to digest. Goats' milk basically has the same amount of lactose in it. However, it is naturally homogenized, which can make it easier to digest.
"Naturally homogenized" means the fat globules in the milk are small and remain suspended in the milk rather than separating out. This makes the milk easier to digest. In cows' milk, the fat globules are large enough that they will separate from the liquid and become hard to digest.
A way to visualize this is to think about the thick layer of fat that rises to the top of cream made from cow's milk.